David N Brooks Designer, Developer, Musician, Artist, and Writer

Hello! I’m David, an interactive designer, musician, artist, and writer living in Georgia.

The Best Photography Advice I Ever Received

29 July 2008

When I was studying photography in college we watched a National Geographic video about photography, much like I would imagine almost every class does. I vaguely remember some of the details of the shoots, some of the locations they used, but even though I don’t necessarily remember everything about it there was one tip that a photographer gave that stuck with me…

“Get in Close and Zoom”

This seemed ridiculous at the moment I heard it, but in a “it’s just crazy enough to work” sort of way. I mean, after-all, when you read the back of a point and shoot camera package it often says “stand about 3 – 10 feet away.” They don’t usually have a zoom on them either. Point and shoot photography (snapshot photography) is probably the most common background from which people enter photography, it was mine too.

And what sense does it make to stand really close to something and then zoom in anyway? Tons. I tried it out and instantly my photographs were better. What it does is two-fold, at least.

1. It forces your shot to have more depth of field.

If you’re standing close to your subject your camera will want to focus on it, naturally. Meanwhile, since you’re so close to your subject the background will not be easily kept in focus. (The exception is if you’re shooting with a non-SLR digital camera, but that’s another topic to write about.) As we’ve all seen with photos that aren’t in focus it makes the things blurry. This adds a nice background for your photo, bringing the subject you want to photograph forward in the composition. Of course sometimes even with items in the background blurred you’ll be able to tell what it is, so you’ll still need to make sure that you don’t give people tree antlers or something equally distracting.

2. It makes composition easier.

Not only does it force depth of field but it helps make creating a composition, and the process of delivering a subject much easier. It basically centralizes the focus to one or two things, not all the other things in your photograph that could be potentially distracting. It’s not going to rid your photos of all distraction though, that’s something you have to learn to do with practice.

Take a look at these two photos, well, they’re actually the same photo. The second one is cropped tighter to prove the point about the composition. I felt this shot was appropriate because it also shows you the first point as well, the blurry background. Ideally I would have been closer to the butterfly, adding some distance between the leaf in front of it and the butterfly itself. The closer you get, the easier it is to simplify your subject since it does the cropping naturally. Which of the two are more appealing?

A butterfly on a leaf, demonstrating how things around it can be distracting.

A butterfly on a leaf, showing the point that zooming is good

But what if I don’t have a zoom lens?

Get close anyway, just make sure you are far enough away that your camera can focus on your subject. All of the shots I took in college were taken with a lens that didn’t have any zoom whatsoever. By getting closer you still get the depth of field that you want in your photo, even if it’s not amplified with zoom. It will probably still help simplify your composition as well.

So, the next time you’re out taking photos try it out. If you’re like me you’ll find that your photos get better very quickly.

Comments

1

Rob Smith said on Jul 29, 10:08 AM

This is a good tip for basic photography fundamentals! It changes the depth of field and drastically enhances the quality of the image, I just wish I had learned about it long before I had.

2

David Airey said on Jul 29, 10:59 AM

Thanks for the tip, David. I’m a budding photographer myself, and every little helps.

3

David Brooks said on Jul 29, 11:42 AM

Rob: At the time I wished that I had learned it sooner, and that I had had a zoom lens to try it out!

David: I’m always collecting new ideas as well since you can never have enough. And of course, I would imagine Scotland has some amazing and unique opportunities for photography. I must say, I’m a bit jealous.

4

Jonathan said on Aug 3, 07:33 PM

Thinks for the advice. I had a professor tell me that and I followed the advice some, but never got too close. I just got back from a mission trip to Haiti where I shot a bunch, and my favorites are where I got in close. Thanks for the good advice!

5

David Brooks said on Aug 4, 03:18 PM

Jonathan: I think you hit the nail on the head there. This technique really works within a certain range, if you get too close you run the risk of having a collection of eye and nose photography. I would say it’s definitely a good point to make.

6

Jeff with Nikon 3000d said on Aug 16, 10:06 AM

It is true, even if the camera does not have zoom you can adjust for that by getting close enough to achieve decent depth of field. I use a <a href=“http://digitalcamerasworldwide.com/nikon/nikon-3000d-striking-the-balance”>nikon 3000d</a>.which obviously does have massive zoom capabilities, but in the past w/o any major zoom, this was a fine trick.

7

Joe said on Jan 13, 10:49 AM

Where in Michigan are you from? I’m in Ann Arbor…

I saw your article on medium.com, and think you have a great tip, David. However, I think you should clarify your comments about depth of field, since it can be a very confusing subject for people (including myself).

In your discussion, you are actually trying to minimize the depth of field — not maximize it. Having less (a small or narrow) depth of field allows you to blur the background and/or the foreground, while you leave the subject in focus. Having a large (wide) depth of field allows you to keep more of the image in focus, meaning that the background and/or foreground may still be in focus, even after you focus on the subject. This can lead the viewer’s eye astray.

So, the heading “1. It forces your shot to have more depth of field.” really should say that it forces your shot to have LESS depth of field. Your comment about using zoom to amplify depth of field is also misleading. By increasing the focal length (which can be done by “zooming” with a zoom lens), you decrease the depth of field — you do not amplify it.

The end result of MINIMIZING depth of field MAXIMIZES the effect you’re looking for, which is one tiny sliver of volume in front of the camera being in focus. This is very confusing for many people (including myself), which is why it’s important to describe it correctly.

I hope I don’t sound pedantic here; I’m just trying to help with a very important topic.

Thanks,
Joe

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About Me

I'm David Brooks, an interactive designer, generative artist, and electronic musician from Michigan. During the day I build things for Artletic, a great UX studio in Colorado. At night I create art and write music as Light The Deep and craft applications like Thousand Wires, JavaScript libraries like ArtisanJS, and build interesting things for the amazing clients of Northward Compass.

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